Raising the Bar in LONDON!
by Joel Stanley
I heard about Storahtelling a number of years ago when I attended courses at Elat Chayyim Jewish Renewal entre in upstate New York. As a Jewish storyteller/teacher who had trained in drama myself, I was intrigued but never had any time to investigate it further, being embroiled with a young family and working hard in the area of Special Educational Needs. Then I crossed paths with it again many years later as Joel Stanley, my son Jonathan’s Barmitzvah teacher (and drama practitioner), told me how he was training as a ‘mobile maven’. Then our Masorti (Conservative) synagogue chazzan told me how she had heard about Storahtelling. Knowing Jonathan and myself were drama enthusiasts, she suggested we incorporate it somehow into his Barmitzvah.
This creative carrot that was dangled in front of me was too delicious to resist and Jonathan and I took the plunge. We asked Joel if Jonathan could compose and direct a Storahtelling Maven as a central aspect of the Torah service element of his Barmitzvah. Joel responded with alacrity and the wonderful journey of discovery, devising and directing began. However, more than anything this journey was a spiritual one as we delved deeply into the text of Parshat Chukkat to create a dramatic staging of the public trial of Aaron, the first High Priest.
For the first time in 17 years I was involved in the collective writing of a script, a script moreover that both had to match line by line the words in a Torah Sedra and bring the words off the scroll to become a powerful vehicle for drama and engagement. Also for the first time in 17 years I had to play a public role, for which I needed to learn lines, a very different task to the improvisational job of the storyteller. Scary, but powerful. And how much more so knowing that my director, my son Jonathan, was depending on this to go right, as along with directing he would be leyning interactively with the action, verse by verse. Over to him!!!
Long before even starting to prepare for my Barmitzvah my mum had told me about Storahtelling and how Jacky, our chazzan, had told her about it. It sounded really weird and I didn’t really think about it again until, having discussed it with my parents, my teacher Joel suggested we try it out. We started exploring the history of Storahtelling through Joel’s big file, the Storahtelling ‘bible’ he had been his training in America.
I realised that this was how the Torah service was meant to be and got really excited about the method of translating and interpreting. I couldn’t wait to get started.
After almost nine months of intensive study of my three Torah portions (our family belongs to two communities and my Barmitzvah was a double-parshah) I made the decision to go with the section dealing with the hitting of the rock in the Parsha Chukkat. We then explored possible characters for the Maven, considering Miriam, the rock and Aaron. After I decided to go with Aaron my dad came in for all our discussions, lessons and rehearsals. We soon got on with writing the script – a combination of planning in the lessons, writing privately and sending it back and forth with Joel. After 5 or 6 drafts we were almost there. We started rehearsing each week and sorting out the finer details.
Eventually everything was ready and we were doing the dress rehearsal - which was a bit of a disaster! But on the day it all came together and was incredible. Everyone thought it was fantastic: my leyning, which I had been learning separately, worked really amazingly with the script, alongside my Joel’s and my dad’s acting as the judge and Aaron.
By the time it came round to Jonathan’s Barmitzvah, I had been his teacher for some three years. So most of all the Maven and Jonathan’s own ‘performance’ was the wonderful culmination of a very special process and journey.
The service was held in an enormous marquee in the garden of one of Jonathan’s family members. There were 180 people there and I think every one of them enjoyed the Maven.
Stepping forwards as Aaron’s judge, banging my gavel on the edge of the bimah and calling for “order, order” the scene was set and we had the whole room’s attention.
Somehow courtroom dramas capture the imagination. We’ve seen it so many times before in countless TV shows and movies. So it was one of this Maven’s real strengths that it brought the sedra to life in a way that people could understand and relate to. ‘Oh, OK,’ they must have thought, ‘I get what’s going on here.’
A highlight for me was the ‘Second Aliyah Stretch’, when we turned to the congregation – the “ladies and gentlemen of the heavenly jury” – and asked them to decide just how guilty Aaron was and of what. When they broke from their discussions and order was regained, there were so many people who wanted to participate and give their opinions that we just couldn’t hear from everybody. Everyone was so enthusiastic it was hard to believe that this was reserved old England.
This was the first Raising the Bar Maven to take place in the UK, the first time anyone here had incorporated a Maven into their Barmitzvah, and it was an undoubted success. Never did it feel out of place or strange, and the comments we received were overwhelmingly positive.
Jonathan now wants to work on another Maven to take place in his synagogue next year, only this time he wants it to be a challenging legal section. He doesn’t do things by halves, this boy!